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Horses, Tractors, Bull Ridin' and Banjos Aren't Country Enough for Billboard

By Joshua Lahijani

When Lil Nas X, an unknown artist at the time, released his single "Old Town Road" on December 3, 2019, he couldn't have known how successful it would become. As of April 10, 2019, it has charted no. 1 on the Billboard Top 100, thanks in part to viral success on TikTok. It was ranked no. 19 on Billboard Hot Country Songs (https://www.billboard.com/charts/country-songs/2019-03-16), that is, until Billboard decided to remove it. Why? Despite the banjos (sampled from Nine Inch Nails' 34 Ghosts IV, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8502868/lil-nas-x-signs-columbia-records) and story of an outlaw cowboy, the song was deemed not to be country enough. In a statement to Rolling Stone Magazine:

[U]pon further review, it was determined that 'Old Town Road' by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard's country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While 'Old Town Road' incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-810844/

Other artists, such as Florida Georgia Line, charted no.1 on Billboard Hot Country songs for weeks with its hit song "Cruise" in 2013 (https://www.billboard.com/charts/country-songs/2013-04-20). To the chagrin of country purists, Cruise is heavily influenced by hip-hop (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/steve-earle-country-music-nashville-chris-stapleton-kendrick-lamar-oasis-a7791486.html). Perhaps this criticism fueled Florida Georgia Line to pursue its successful remix featuring hip-hop star Nelly (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmZ9xRO7M9M). Yet, as a sign of consistency, as the remix charted fourth on the Billboard's The Hot 100 (https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100/2013-07-06), Billboard did not permit crossover to the Hot Country Songs (https://www.billboard.com/charts/country-songs/2013-07-06), that held the original at no. 1 in the same period.

Similar to Cruise's embrace of hip-hop, Old Town Road's criticism further embraced country with a remix featuring country star Billy Ray Cyrus (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUcisIlT7sM). Yet, despite the country credentials (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/05/business/media/lil-nas-x-billy-ray-cyrus-billboard.html), the song remains off the Hot Country Song chart (https://www.billboard.com/charts/country-songs).

According to Billboard, its methodology is developed from "key fan interactions with music, including album sales and downloads, track downloads, radio airplay and touring as well as streaming and social interactions." (https://www.billboard.com/p/faq) Billboard charts are copyrighted works used to generate income from licensing (http://billboardlicensing.licensestream.com/LicenseStream/home/licensestream.aspx) and must meet the "thin copyright" standards set forth in Feist (https://www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/cases/499_US_340.htm). That is, in addition to independent creation, it must have a modicum of creativity as to selection and arrangement. This may show Billboard's underlying motives behind its selection. While other popular country charts, such as iTunes, have included Old Town Road, Billboard's exclusion of those "not country enough" could strengthen its underlying copyright moving forward, and thereby could be considered the country chart less influenced by hip-hop, rap, and other genres. Others, like Rolling Stone, have claimed less righteous motives for its inclusion, including racial discrimination (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-810844/).

Today, Lil Nas X is signed to Columbia Records.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 11, 2019 9:57 AM.

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